Our great senior substitute Annie Schapira is a dedicated and discerning reader of YA fiction. Enjoy her latest review!
What would you endure in order to be beautiful? The Belles, Dhonielle Clayton’s 2018 novel, introduces Young Adult readers (and others!) to the kingdom of Orléans, whose citizens have been cursed with grotesque appearances until and unless a Belle can be hired to transform them - slowly, painfully, and expensively - into visions of beauty. Although all of the Belles have been bred for this purpose, only one of them can become the royal “favorite,” and for sixteen-year-old Camellia, the realization of that dream is just the beginning. At the queen’s palace, she must face not only the demands of her clients, but also a cruel princess’s sadistic whims, a dying ruler with her own plans for Camellia’s abilities, the strange behavior of her faraway Belle “sisters,” and the disturbing secrets that can hide behind a pretty exterior.
As she delves into the costs of perfection in her imaginary world, Clayton holds up a truth-telling mirror to our own. Her novel, while managing to avoid preaching or offering easy answers, examines cultural myths about appearances, self- and social acceptance, and the supposed importance of following ever-shifting trends, even to the point of physical or financial suffering, so as not to appear “monstrous.” The lushly described sensory experiences and cultural details of Orléans are magnificently enticing throughout, even as the manipulative power games and physical horrors are increasingly disturbing. And despite the fantastical nature of Camellia’s origins and circumstances, her love for the other Belles, and her every attempt to navigate difficult choices, make her a believable and enjoyable heroine. Although the book ends on a cliffhanger, the sequel will be released in March 2019, and I look forward to finding out where Camellia’s journey takes her next.